Sep 8, 2013; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Kansas City Chiefs tackle Eric Fisher (72) blocks Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Jason Babin (58) during the game at EverBank Field. Mandatory Credit: Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs Offensive Line: Promise Or Problem?


ArmchairAddict1

The Kansas City Chiefs have had a pretty uneventful offseason in 2014. There was no big name free agent signings. There were no draft day trades. The contract extensions that many are expecting for players like Alex Smith, Justin Houston, and Eric Berry have yet to happen. This relatively boring offseason has left little for die hard KC fans to discuss and debate as the days until training camp slowly pass by. Since the 2013 season came to a close fans have discussed Alex Smith, the #2 WR spot, the 2014 draft class, the pass rush, and most recently the loss of Pro Bowl CB Brandon Flowers. While all of those topics are interesting and important to the team, I’m not sure any one of those things will have a greater impact on the 2014 season than the development of the offensive line.

While I understand that the offensive line isn’t the most exciting part of a team to watch and/or discuss, their importance simply can’t be denied. While I’m certainly no expert when it comes to offensive line technique I do try my best to not be one of those casual fans that only notices the offensive line when something goes wrong. Like many of you, when I’m watching a game live my eyes usually follow the ball which makes it easy to overlook what the offensive line is doing unless it happens right by the QB or RB. That’s why when I re-watch a game I often turn my attention to the trenches to see what I may have overlooked. In recent months I have made an effort to pay special attention to the four players from last season who are almost assured to be starting on the OL for KC next year: Rodney Hudson, Donald Stephenson, Eric Fisher, and Jeff Allen. These four will make up 80% of KC’s OL next season with the RG spot up for grabs.

So what should KC fans expect from this group? Many casual NFL fans and less credible media members are acting like KC has a whole new offensive line after losing “three starters” in Branden Albert, Geoff Schwartz, and Jon Asamoah. However, as most of you reading this know, Schwartz and Asamoah split time at the same RG spot and because of injuries to both Albert and Fisher, Stephenson played over 500 snaps last season and has experience starting at both tackle spots. Therefore, KC is really only looking for one new starter on their OL so the question isn’t as much “who” will start for KC, but will the group be able to get the job done?

If you were to just look at the Pro Football Focus ratings for KC’s returning four starters it doesn’t look very encouraging. Here are the ratings for each of those four from last season and where that ranked them in the NFL:

Rodney Hudson: +4.4 (17th out of 35 centers)
Jeff Allen: -10.7 (60th out of 81 guards)
Donald Stephenson: -10.7 (61st out of 76 tackles)
Eric Fisher: -21.5 (70th out of 76 tackles)

Those numbers are downright scary. If you were to simply base your entire opinion of KC’s OL off of those numbers that would give you a middle of the road center, a starting guard and both tackles that rate amongst the worst starters in the NFL, and the final guard spot likely to be filled by a former undrafted player with one career start (Rishaw Johnson), a veteran journeyman who had a -7.0 PFF grade last season (Jeff Linkenbach), or a rookie 6th round draft pick (Zach Fulton). That’s a pretty depressing situation when you look at it from that angle.

So should KC fans be predicting doom and gloom for their offense next season?

Maybe not just yet.

The good news here is that KC’s offensive line is likely going to be made up of very young players. The four likely starters mentioned above have an average age of just 24 years old. Despite that incredibly young average, they are not completely lacking in game experience. Hudson, Allen, Stephenson, and Fisher have appeared in a combined 112 games with 73 starts. That’s an average of about 28 games and 18 starts a piece. To have four players with an average age of 24 that are averaging almost two seasons of game experience and slightly over a full season of starting experience is actually quite encouraging. All four of those players were seen as having enough upside to use a quality draft pick on. In fact, the average draft slot of those four players was 43.5. Fisher was the first overall pick, Hudson and Allen were second round selections, and Stephenson was the latest drafted of the group at pick #74 in the third round.

My point here is that there is enough natural ability and athleticism in this group to believe that they all have a chance to be solid if not very good NFL players. The combination of this natural ability, some quality NFL experience for their ages, and a very well respected coaching staff should give KC fans some hope that this group could come together to form a very good up and coming offensive line.

After spending some time watching these four players recently, if I had to sum each one up in one word here is what I would go with:

Rodney Hudson: SOLID

Hudson isn’t a dominant player, but he’s not a concern either. I don’t know if he’ll ever be a physically imposing player, but he does seem to be a very smart one. That’s not a surprise as that was his reputation coming out of college. Having a player at center that seems to have a good understanding of what is going on is a must for a good OL. As long as Hudson is healthy I don’t really have any concerns with him and believe he’s a safe bet to be an average to above average starter.

Jeff Allen: UNINSPIRING

Jeff Allen is the player out of this group that I’m least excited about. There was a point in time that I thought he was just flat out bad, but after watching closer I have to admit that I was guilty of only noticing Allen when he got beat. Allen does have times where he plays solid and shows promise, but he also has some plays where he gets beat pretty soundly. I’d like to see him play with more strength and am encouraged by the news that he attended LeCharles Bentley’s OL offseason program that former Chief Geoff Schwartz credited with helping him. Allen could still become a very good offensive lineman, but with 27 starts already under his belt if he doesn’t take a step forward this season it may be time for the Chiefs to look elsewhere.

Donald Stephenson: PROMISING

I think you can make a pretty strong case that Stephenson is the second best returning lineman for KC after Hudson. In 32 games and 14 starts over his first two seasons he has shown good athleticism and promise in filling in at both tackle spots. I think that with the experience already under his belt he’ll only get better now that KC appears to be committed to him as one of their starting tackles. Stephenson also worked with LeCharles Bentley this offseason and I have a sneaking suspicion that by the end of next season Stephenson could be the KC lineman that has taken the biggest step forward.

Eric Fisher: INCOMPLETE

Eric Fisher’s rookie season was a disappointment. The reason the word I picked for Fisher is “incomplete” instead of “disappointment” is because there are some excuses to be made for Fisher last season that are pushing back my opinion of him until he gets another shot. Fisher was transitioning from Central Michigan to the NFL, he was having to play RT for the first time in his career, and he was battling injuries all season long. Now, there has been many a NFL player that found their career over before they ran out of excuses for their poor play, so Fisher’s success is far from guaranteed. However, Fisher was seen my most evaluators as a safe pick as a long term NFL starter. Reports are that he has bulked up a lot in the offseason with more muscle to handle stronger NFL players than he had faced in college. He is also moving back to his natural LT spot so if he is 100% healthy there will be no more excuses to be made. If Fisher looks like a first overall pick this season the Chiefs line will probably be fine. If we have to make more excuses for him again next season then KC’s offense could be in trouble.

The final starting spot will be interesting to watch in training camp. I think KC would probably like it to go to either Rishaw Johnson or Zach Fulton. Either of these players would give KC yet another young offensive lineman to groom and give KC the possibility of keeping the same group together for a long time. Continuity is seen as one of the biggest keys to sustaining success on the offensive line and if KC can lock in their core group for the foreseeable future that would be a very good thing.

I’m not alone in my assessment of KC’s offensive line. In doing a quick search for offensive line rankings I found Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller had KC rated #24 in his rankings but also had this to say about them:

The Kansas City Chiefs have the potential on the O-line to go from No. 24 to the top 10 at season’s end, but they are relying on a scary amount of youth and potential

Then over at footballsavages.com admitted Chiefs homer “Sully” broke down and rated all 32 offensive lines and ranked KC at #23. However, his summary was similar to Miller’s:

This group will live and die with the play of Fisher and could be ranked as high as 10 or a low as 30 by year’s end.

So what do you think Addicts? When you look at KC’s offensive line do you see more problems or promise? Do you think I’m overstating when I say that no other position group may impact KC’s success next season more than the offensive line? Do you think Fisher will step up and earn his draft spot this season? Who do you think will win the RG spot? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

As always, thanks for reading and GO CHIEFS!!!!!!!!

Follow me on Twitter: @LyleGraversen

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  • freshmeat62

    Potential! That is the word I’m going to optimistically use. You’re assessment, I believe, was spot on. You say Fisher bulked up this off season, but if he did, that may be a concern, since he wouldn’t have been able to do any strength training because of his shoulder. Extra weight may be just flab- don’t know, just saying.

    Like to know what those PFF scores were as the season progressed. 1st half of season vs. 2nd half.

    One thing that I read several months ago about Reid that makes me feel OK about the o-line, is that he’s not that concerned about losing so many from his o-line. He feels he can find 5 guys and build a new one that will perform well. Sure hope so!!!

    • berttheclock

      Haley thought he could find five guys off some street corner. I would rather find five guys of the Peoria Caterpiller type. But, I believe Reid really feels Dorsey can find five guys for him. With the Eagles, Andy personally drafted a guard at 23 in the first round who ended up being a major bust and could not even make it with the Dolphins.

    • Lyle Graversen

      The reports out of OTAs were that Fisher looked like he was in great shape and it was “good weight” that he added. There certainly have been a lot of players that looked great in shorts and a t-shirt but struggled when the pads came on so we shall see. I’m still hopeful that this group will come together this season.

  • berttheclock

    I believe a great deal will come down to two things. Did Bentley really improve both Stephenson and Allen, especially, Allen? Is Andy Heck really capable of improving pass protection? When Heck was with the Jags, they had three great rushing seasons and with the Chiefs, his offensive line appeared to be better at run blocking than pass blocking. Much of coaching offensive linemen comes down to being able to instill technique into players. Technique is far more important than just having big guys up front. Knowing how to use leverage, proper footwork and working as a unit is a must. I can understand why you rated Hudson at the top. Last year was his first major learning year in the NFL and he became better as the season progressed. Fisher was very raw as a rookie and was injured. Allen has little excuses in not being able to pass block. As an offensive tackle at Illinois he was required to pass block, so what happened to him in the NFL as a guard? I have seen him stood up and turned like a turnstile on far too many occasions. When Stephenson was drafted, the word on him was he lacked upper body strength. There were moments last season where he appeared to have gained strength. His “cuz” micah has stated he has gained such.

    I’m remain with “The Jury is Still Out” folks with my glass half full of optimism. However, glad to see you back, Lyle, and I trust you and your family had a well deserved vacation.

    • Lyle Graversen

      Let’s cross our fingers and hope that Bentley’s program helped both Allen and Stephenson. If they both take a big step forward this year it will help a lot. Fisher is still the key in my mind, but if the LG playing next to him is at least stable, that should help. On a personal note, I had a GREAT vacation. Wasn’t sure I’d survive 12 days of road trip/vacation but it was a blast.

  • Kevin McClintock

    How much worse can this year’s line be compared to last year’s group? People are complaining about the free agency departures from the O-Line – heck, I look at that as a blessing in disguise.

    • Lyle Graversen

      I don’t know that I can agree with that statement. Albert and Schwartz were clearly our best two OL last season. I understand why they let both of them go (although I would have resigned Schwartz), but the biggest problems they had on the OL last season (in my opinion) were Fisher and Allen who are both back.

    • Suzi Conger

      Agreed about albert. Mistake not resigning GSchwartz, imho

  • Andy

    Your article was spot on.
    I am less concerned about our O-line and offense in general because I believe Reid can make hay into gold.
    Sutton and the D are my concerns.

    • Lyle Graversen

      I am definitely willing to give Reid the benefit of the doubt for now, he’s earned it both with the job he did overall here in KC last season turning this team around and his track record of having good OLs in Philly. Hopefully he shows us that our trust was warranted.

      • KCMikeG

        Look at the revolving door due to injuries we suffered last year and still we were one of the top ranked running teams. Reid’s coaching and Fisher’s healthy growth will make or break the OL.

  • Stacy D. Smith

    Two players at new positions and a new face at right guard. There will be growing pains.

    • Lyle Graversen

      I could be wrong, but I’m not really worried about a learning curve for Stephenson at RT. He’s played there before, filling in for Fisher last season some and looked better than Fisher did in the process. In my opinion, the three biggest questions (in order):

      1. Does Fisher look like a NFL starting LT?
      2. Who starts at RG?
      3. Can Allen improve or will he continue to be a liability?

      • Stacy D. Smith

        I’m still not convinced about Stephenson. He has fewer than 8 starts at right tackle.

        • Lyle Graversen

          If you read the Paylor piece in the Star I linked above LeBentley’s nickname for Stephenson is “The Big Natural”. For a guy that trains OL for a living for him to see Stephenson that way is encouraging to me. Here’s Bentley’s actual quote on Stephenson from the article:

          “When you have a guy that’s so gifted in terms of God-given ability, then you can also lose focus and lose the ability to really learn how to be a true master of your craft,” Bentley said. “The biggest thing with turning him into the best player he can be, just attention to detail and constantly focusing on the little things.”

  • berttheclock

    Hey, Lyle, did you purposely show that photo above of Eric Fisher trying to block Jason Babin of the Jags, last year? Babin had one sack and two QB hits that game.

    • Lyle Graversen

      No, I wanted a picture of Fisher since I think he is the biggest X-factor in the OL’s success this year so I just did a search for a good action pick. But let’s be honest, a pic from most of the games he played last year would probably involve a guy beating him multiple times.

  • tm1946

    I would say our OL will face challenges as a unit and individually. Hudson will need a new contract next year, Fisher will hopefully not have the Soph. jinx, Allen will find some kind of game we can be proud of, and some of the newbees will need to play now not ride the bench. Betting Reid already has a plan with several variations, just in case.

    • Lyle Graversen

      My hope is that they can hold their own at the beginning of the year and then really come together and develop into a good group as the year goes on. Going up against the defensive fronts of the NFL West will definitely be trial by fire.

  • Lyle Graversen

    I meant to include this link in the post, but if you haven’t read the piece Terez Paylor had in the Star about Allen and Stephenson training with LeCharles Bentley you should DEFINITELY give it a read.

    http://www.kansascity.com/sports/nfl/kansas-city-chiefs/article594304.html

    • Lyle Graversen

      Also if you follow Bentley on twitter and read some of his thoughts on OL, training, conditioning, it’s pretty encouraging to think of those guys training with him.

      • berttheclock

        What I gained from that article is the fact graduation at the Bentley Academy is not a given and he ended up praising both linemen.

  • ladner morse

    Lyle, great piece as always. One question… how do you see the swing (reserve) tackle job panning out? I don’t believe in Jeffrey Linkenbach and think that if Fisher goes down, then Stephenson will likely go ahead and move over to LT and Reid will find someone to fill in at RT. What do you think?

    • Lyle Graversen

      That job is J’Marcus Webb’s for the taking. While Webb gets blasted for being horrible at protecting Cutler in Chicago, the fact is that he’s only 25, came from a tiny college and was thrown to the wolves right away and then (at least according to his PFF grades) showed improvement every season he got regular playing time.

      • ladner morse

        I’ve personally seen improvements in Webb too and have hopes for him. However… to be politically incorrect… if he was an Indian, he would be named J’Marcus Slowfeet.

        • berttheclock

          Have you been reading a bit too much of “Longmire”? I still have problems typing Stephenson instead of Russell Wilson. But, then again, he might have saved Pioli, so, let history remain in tact.

  • berttheclock

    Andy Heck was a first round draft pick, at 15, second only offensive lineman to the infamous Tony Manderich. Unfortunately, he ended up starting for mediocre O-lines in Seattle, Chicago and Washington. But, if you look at his offensive line coaching with the Jags, you will notice he can develop solid pass protecting lines if he has the horses. In his first year with the Jags, his line gave up 37 sacks, then, 47, 35 and 37, but, in 2008 they improved to only giving up 29 sacks and the next year, when, he, also, had a great run blocking line, they gave up a measly 14. This was followed by respective years of 26, 31 and 20. Heck can coach, but, he really needs talent on his offensive line.

    BTW, should any fan of the Chiefs get cocky about Green Bay taking Manderich as the second player taken in that draft, near the top of that second round, the Chiefs took the QB of the future for KC, one, Mike Elkins out of Wake Forest, who ended up playing soon after for the Surge.

    • Andy

      No chief fan, that lives in Realville, can be cocky about past drafts.

  • Mike Arnold

    I sure remember after DPoe’s rookie season. Everyone complained about his play and being a “bust”. Well, remember, Fisher was spoken by the Chiefs’ management about having greatest upside. Other tackles in that draft class might have been better, but fisher will turn out to be better long term. My god, he was in inured so much of his rookie season. Let us see any NFL tackle try to play with a bad shoulder which limits use of one arm. Fisher hasn’t even done growing yet!! He will be a beast. Better him than that pretty boy in Jacksonville. I hope this time next year when Fisher has entrenched himself as our top lineman. every person talking bad gets some of the humble pie. He is nowhere near bust status, he was injured.

    • Suzi Conger

      I totally agree with you Mike about Fish; my only concern; is he totally healed, or will he be riddled with injury/re-injury…time will tell

  • Merlin_Arrowhead_Addict

    Great job Lyle. The offensive line is my biggest concern going into this season. It’s too raw and untested at the moment. If the line doesn’t come together, the Chiefs are in for a long season.

    • Suzi Conger

      Agreed; and specifically Alex. High injury risk, no time to execute and inadequate time for receivers to separate/run routes

      • berttheclock

        Especially in the West Coast where a QB’s best friend is his TE. With the injuries to both Fasano and Kelce and poor offensive line blocking, often, the remaining TE had to stay in to block.

  • Suzi Conger

    Great article Lyle; I’ve been wanting a good intelligent opinion of our OLine, thanks. Definately been feeling skeptical about the oline….time will tell. Just hope Alex survives without injury, and he has the needed time to execute, unlike the first half of ’13 season. PFF graded Alex the #1 QB for converting pressures into constructive plays, and caused our below-average OL to look better than they were last season, even with +26-ish GSchwartz, and +10 BA. This is a newly recent fun film which demonstrates how often AS11 was faced with collapsed pockets, pressures http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RxUtc7wiR5w I heard that Smith’s contract extention is taking this long to formalize due to the needed hazzard/combat pay bonus negotiations, lol (just kidding,,,,maybe ) Appreciate your info.

    • berttheclock

      I believe the hang up is how many missions he must fly before being able to return home safely. They started with 25, but, it looks as though it might be extended into the thirties or more. But, I can appreciate why he keeps wanting to sit on his flak jacket.

  • area

    Hate to say it, but this is a rebuilding year. Three players on the o.line are new or in different positions. This unit as a whole has not taken 1 snap together. Linkenbach and Webb are cheap roster spot holders, not long term even for depth. The f.o. must be holding a lot if faith in the development of Fulton and Doc Larry to shore up the l.g. and r.g. for the future is all I can gather, but we’ll see. I have great faith in Stephenson, Hudson, and I’m simply hoping in Fisher. I’ve posted before that I think the offense will have to carry the defense a couple or few games to start this season, but unless the o.line gels day one, it’s a moot point.

  • Jim Harper

    Maybe I am just being a homer, but I think this line is an improvement over last year and Fisher will shine from the left side. The only player we lost that hurt was Schwartz. Asamoah was a serviceable guard at best and Albert was not anywhere near worth what he was asking for and I believe that Fisher will be an All Pro no later than next year. Combined with outstanding coaching this offensive line will be just fine.

  • PhataLerror

    I thought this was a really nice read. The only thing this article is lacking is that it views the offensive line in a vacuum.

    Imagine you could have any NFL quarterback you wanted, but you had to put him behind the offensive line that the Chiefs will field in 2014. Would you put a perennial Pro Bowl quarterback with a suspect neck there? How about a quarterback that just missed seven games due to a cracked collarbone? Now go back and take a look at the 49ers’ offensive line from 2011. And having done that, ask yourself if you’d pick more than four of today’s NFL quarterbacks before you’d pick Alex Smith.